Better data, better decisions, better forests

Taking good decisions requires sound information - and protecting forests requires forest monitoring

Forests around the world are at risk. Information on forests can make us aware of what is at stake and help us to reduce deforestation and improve forest management. ©FAO/Adriane Tobias


We all know that making good decisions requires good data. This is clear in our day-to-day lives. How can we choose what to wear in the morning without knowing whether it will rain or not? How would we find the way to work without a map? Why would we ever go shopping if we didn’t know that the fridge was empty? 

To take decisions, we need information – especially when we are trying to solve complex problems. Forests are home to most of the earth’s biodiversity, and they supply us with water, livelihoods and food. And yet deforestation and forest degradation continue to take place at alarming rates. Reducing deforestation and managing the world’s forest resources sustainably is among the biggest challenges of our time. Just like the simple decisions we make every day, information is needed to make us aware of what is at stake and help us solve the problem. FAO provides countries with technical support and innovative tools to help them gather the data they need to monitor and protect their forests.

Here are some great achievements that prove that real progress can be made with better information on forests: 

Data from forest monitoring have enabled countries to reduce deforestation and manage forests better

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research has been tracking deforestation across the vast Amazon since the 1980s. In the early 2000s, when the data showed crisis-level deforestation, there was an outcry from civil society, both in Brazil and internationally. The government acted decisicvely, and the following years saw legal reform, a change in law enforcement, new fiscal incentives, new protected areas and innovative private sector engagement. Several of these activities directly use Brazil’s forest monitoring data for decision-making. During 2005-2014, deforestation rates dropped by around 70 percent. 

Viet Nam also turned around its forestry sector when transitioning towards a market-based economy. The country’s forest cover had been declining for decades, but in the early 1990s Viet Nam decided to introduce a more careful approach to logging quotas were set based on forest inventory results. FAO has since supported Viet Nam’s forest inventories through a series of technical assistance programmes. Also, Viet Nam launched vast tree planting programmes, using the same technical capacities for forest inventories, for site identification and progress monitoring. Net forest loss has stopped, and Viet Nam’s forest area has been increasing ever since.

Carefully managed, forests can be a sustainable source of timber. Doing that requires data on forest area, species and their growth and yields. Left/Top:©EnvatoElements Right/Bottom: ©UN-REDD

Tailored data are helping countries to protect forests and mitigate climate change 

Impactful forest monitoring is not only about accurate data. It is about information that responds to specific needs and that is communicated clearly to those who make decisions. Information is only useful if it is communicated in a relevant and specific way.

When FAO’s forest monitoring experts provide technical assistance to member countries, they begin by consulting with stakeholders to understand their needs. With the battle against climate change high on the world agenda, monitoring to track greenhouse gas emissions from forests is in high demand. 

FAO has supported more than 45 countries in developing robust National Forest Monitoring Systems (NFMS), providing data and information to improve forest management, reduce deforestation and degradation and enable urgently needed climate change mitigation. Forest carbon storage, greenhouse gas emissions and carbon removals from forest growth need to be quantified. FAO’s technical experts work side-by-side with country experts to plan data collection, analyse forest inventory results, process satellite imagery, estimate emissions and make arrangements for reporting.

For example, Papua New Guinea has significantly invested  in reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Since 2011, FAO has provided support in developing an NFMS that could reliably track progress. The country has not only developed a forest mitigation strategy, it has also reduced emissions by more than nine million tonnes in 2014 and 2015.

Satellites enable us to collect an incredible amount of information on forests. In this image of East Kalimantan, Indonesia in 2019, deforestation is clearly visible in the light brown patches that show newly-converted land. The surrounding dark green is rainforest. ©ESA

Increased availability of affordable and high-performance forest monitoring tools through open-source solutions

The internet has democratized the sharing and disseminating of information. Monitoring is now easier and more available for countries and interested parties through open source solutions. FAO offers countries a variety of tools for environmental monitoring to benefit their forests.

For example, FAO’s Open Foris initiative provides free, open-source online tools and platforms that have already enabled more than 30 000 people across 180 countries to collect, analyse and report forest data. Open Foris includes  SEPAL, an innovative cloud-based  platform enabling the creation of critical forest and land cover information from satellite images, supporting efforts to monitor landscape changes, track deforestation and mitigate and adapt to climate change 

FAO has complied dozens of country examples where forest monitoring data has catalysed better management and restoration of forests in a new publication entitled, “Better data, better decisions – towards impactful forest monitoring”. The examples compiled here will help support countries in moving towards better decision making for forests. 

“Now it is the time to replicate these positive experiences, refine our approaches to forest monitoring and ensure that our efforts are catalytic and enable much needed action for forests and the climate,” says Julian Fox, FAO’s Team Leader for National Forest Monitioring.

If we want to conserve the world’s forests, accurate forest monitoring is key. This is the final decade to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, and as conveyed by FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment, we still have a long way to go to achieve SDG indicator 15.2.1 – the sustainable management of forests. Information, however, can help ensure that we are on the right path. FAO is committed to helping countries gather data, make it accessible and implement the right, science-based forest management strategies. Halting deforestation is part of shaping a better world, not just for our generation but for generations to come.

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